The RICE (rest, ice, compress, elevate) method is the most common way to treat mild muscle strains, but there are other approaches. More severe cases may need medication, physical therapy, or surgery.
Overexerting your body can lead to numerous injuries. A muscle strain, or pulled muscle, occurs when your muscle is overstretched or torn. This can be minor and like soreness after an intense workout, or it can be so severe that it needs medical attention.
Muscle strains are a very common injury. Most people who participate in sports have experienced it at some point in their lives. Poor conditioning, fatigue, and an improper warmup can lead to a muscle strain.
When muscle strain occurs, people often report a popping or snapping sensation. This is the feeling of the muscle tissue being stretched until it snaps. This is often a very painful experience. Strains most commonly occur in the:
- lower back
- hamstring muscle, which is located in the back of the thigh
There are several different ways to treat muscle strains. The extent of the treatment depends on the extent of the strain.
Diagnosing and treating a muscle strain:
- alleviates pain and inflammation
- reduces the risk of further injury
- helps you regain full use of your body
- gives your body a chance to rest and heal properly
Without proper treatment, you may experience recurring injuries or pain and weakness in the muscle during everyday use. It can be especially painful during exercise and athletic activities.
In some cases, surgery may be necessary to repair a muscle that’s torn as opposed to one that’s strained. A doctor will
Approaches to treatment depend on the type and severity of your injury.
If needed, anti-inflammatory pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil) or aspirin can help reduce swelling and pain.
Physical therapy may also be needed.
Surgery is sometimes considered for torn or ruptured muscles. You and your doctor will discuss all surgical or nonsurgical options available to repair your muscle.
Most muscle strains are minor and don’t require professional medical treatment. Properly treating muscle strain requires the right supplies and a comfortable place to rest. You may need the following supplies:
- plastic bag
- compression bandage, such as an ACE bandage
Depending on the muscle affected, you may need assistive devices to help stabilize the muscle, especially if it affects one of the limbs. These can include:
- a sling
- a brace
- a wheelchair
With proper treatment, all of these devices are temporary.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the most common and effective treatment for muscle strains is the RICE method. The individual letters of RICE stand for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. In particular, RICE involves the following:
- Rest by taking an adequate amount of time to heal and avoiding physical activity. This can help strained muscles and other injuries.
- Ice your muscle by using cold packs with a barrier between them and your skin four to eight times per day for 20 minutes at a time.
- Compress your muscle by applying a steady, gentle pressure on it. This prevents swelling and inflammation, which are thought to delay healing. Wrapping an elastic bandage around the affected muscle is best.
- Elevate the injury above your heart to reduce swelling. Use pillows or other devices to raise an affected limb while you rest.
Although the RICE approach remains popular, newer approaches also exist. Some health care professionals recommend using the PEACE and LOVE method for muscle strains.
The PEACE approach is meant to be used right after your injury and during early healing. The letters in PEACE instruct you to:
- Protect the injury from irritation by reducing your use of the strained limb or area. As your pain lowers, try to get back to using the strained area as soon as possible.
- Elevate the injury above your heart to help reduce swelling, using pillows or other supports.
- Avoid anti-inflammatory treatments like NSAIDs and ice. Some believe that inflammation is important for healing a strain.
- Compress the muscle with tape or an elastic bandage.
- Educate yourself to know how long recovery can take and what to expect along the way. Talk with your doctor or health care professional.
After the first few days of rest, the LOVE method applies a more active approach to healing. The letters in LOVE stand for:
- Load: Get back to using your strained muscle as much as you can, as long as you aren’t causing pain.
- Optimism: Do your best to remain positive about your healing process.
- Vascularization: Try to find ways to get active. Working on your cardiovascular health might help you heal.
- Exercise: Do the exercises that are recommended by your doctor or health care professional, if they recommend any.
If you’re choosing between the RICE method and the PEACE and LOVE method, it’s best to discuss your options with your doctor.
There are very few risks of treating a muscle strain. However, there’s a small chance of taking too many painkillers or leaving an ice pack on the skin for too long.
If you try to use the injured area, watch out for pain or any other signs that the injury is getting worse.
Always follow dosage instructions on all prescription or over-the-counter medications. Use a barrier such as a towel between an ice pack and your skin. Allow your skin to warm up in between icing intervals.
Surgery to repair a torn muscle carries certain risks. These can include:
- blood clots
- slowed healing time
The last thing you want to do is reinjure a strained muscle. There are several ways you can prevent a muscle strain from recurring, including:
- allowing for proper time to heal from an injury
- stretching your muscles daily
- cross-training for sports by weightlifting or choosing another activity to strengthen your muscles
- warming up before exercise or intense activity
- eating foods high in potassium, like bananas and avocados, before exercise to prevent muscle fatigue
- properly hydrating during exercise
Talk with a doctor about what steps you can take to avoid muscle strains if you experience them regularly.
If you have a muscle tear that requires surgery, medication or physical therapy may be necessary after your procedure. Your doctor will provide specific follow-up instructions based on the type and severity of your injury.